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History of Great Britain

History of Great Britain

History of Britain

The kingdom of Great Britain was formed by the Act of Union (1707) between

England and Scotland. England (including the principality of Wales, annexed

in the 14th century) and Scotland had been separate kingdoms since the

early Middle Ages, but since 1603 the same monarch has ruled both lands.

Only in 1707, however, did London become the capital of the entire island.

Great Britain from then on had a single Parliament and a single system of

national administration, taxation, and weights and measures. All tariff

barriers within the island were ended. England and Scotland continued,

however, to have separate traditions of law and separate established

churches—the Presbyterian in Scotland, the Anglican in England and Wales.

For the history of the two countries before 1707, see Britain, Ancient;

England; Scotland.

A Century of Conflicts

One of the chief purposes of the planners of the Act of Union had been to

strengthen a land preoccupied with the War of the Spanish Succession. Under

the leadership of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Britain and its

allies had won many battles against France, then the most populous and

powerful European state, but by 1710 it seemed clear that not even

Marlborough could prevent Louis XIV of France from installing a Bourbon

relation on the Spanish throne. Marlborough and his political allies were

replaced by members of the Tory Party, who in due course made peace with

France. In the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Britain acknowledged the right of

the Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish crown. At the same time, France ceded to

Britain the North American areas of Hudson Bay, Nova Scotia, and

Newfoundland. Spain ceded Gibraltar and the Mediterranean island of Minorca

and granted to British merchants a limited right to trade with Spain’s

American colonies; included in that (until 1750) was the asiento—the right

to import African slaves into Spanish America.

Because Queen Anne had no surviving children, she was succeeded, according

to the Act of Settlement (1701), by her nearest Protestant relative, the

elector of Hannover, who came from Germany in 1714 and was accepted as King

George I of Great Britain. A new era of British history began.

Government in the 18th Century

Although the first years of George I’s reign were marked by two major

crises—the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 by followers of Queen Anne’s half

brother, James Stuart, and the South Sea Bubble, a stock market crash of

1720—Britain was actually entering two decades of relative peace and

stability. Local government was left largely in the hands of country

gentlemen owning large estates. As justices of the peace, they settled the

majority of legal disputes. They also administered roads, bridges, inns,

and markets and supervised the local operation of the Poor Law—aid to

orphans, paupers, the very old, and those too ill to work. At the national

level, many Britons came to take pride in their mixed government, which

happily combined monarchical (the hereditary ruler), aristocratic (the

hereditary House of Lords), and democratic (the elected House of Commons)

elements and also provided for an independent judiciary. The reign of Queen

Anne had been marked by parliamentary elections every three years and by

keen rivalry between Whig and Tory factions. With the coming of George I,

the Whigs were given preference over the Tories, many of whom were

sympathetic to the claims of the Stuart pretenders. Under the Septennial

Act of 1716, parliamentary elections were required every seven years rather

than every three, and direct political participation declined. Parliament

was made up of 122 county members and 436 borough members. Virtually all

counties and boroughs sent two members to Parliament, but each borough,

whether a large city or a tiny village, had its own tradition of choosing

its members of Parliament. Even those Britons who lacked the right to vote

could claim the rights of petition, jury trial, and freedom from arbitrary

arrest. Full political privileges were granted only to members of the

Anglican church, but non-Anglican Protestants could legally hold office if

they were willing to take Anglican communion once a year.

The Era of Robert Walpole

Although the king could appoint whomever he wished to his government, he

found it convenient to select members of Parliament, who could exercise

influence there. Such was the case of Robert Walpole, who was appointed

first lord of the Treasury (and came to be known as prime minister) in 1721

in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble. The Bubble was sparked by the

financial collapse of the giant South Sea Company. The crash slowed down

the commercial boom of the previous three decades, a time when the Bank of

England had been founded, the concept of a long-term national debt

formulated, and many large joint-stock companies established. In part

because George I could not speak English and in part because both he and

his son, King George II, were often in Hannover, Germany, which they

continued to rule, Walpole was able to build up and dominate a government

machine. He presided over an informal group of ministers that came to be

known as the cabinet, and he controlled Parliament by his personality, his

policies, and his use of patronage. His influence, however, had limits.

Hoping to curb smuggling, Walpole in 1732 and 1733 sought to replace a land

tax and customs duties on imports with an excise tax on wine and tobacco

collected from retailers, but parliamentary critics and popular rioters

protested against the army of tax collectors that the bill would have

created, and Walpole was ultimately forced to give up his plan. During his

administration, Walpole kept Great Britain out of war, and even Anglo-

French relations remained cordial. In the late 1730s, however, a war party

emerged in Parliament. Its members sought revenge against Spain for the

harassment by Spanish coast guards of British merchants who wished to trade

with Spanish colonists in the Americas. In 1739, against Walpole’s better

judgment, Britain declared war on Spain, and two years later parliamentary

pressure forced Walpole to resign.

Two Decades of Conflict

Between 1739 and 1763, Great Britain was generally at war. The war against

Spain (see Jenkins’s Ear, War of) soon merged with the War of the Austrian

Succession, which began in 1740, pitting Prussia, France, and Spain against

Austria. Great Britain became Austria’s chief ally, and British armies and

ships fought the French in Europe, in North America, on the high seas, and

in India, where the English and French East India companies competed for

influence. In 1745 the Scottish Jacobites, taking advantage of Britain’s

involvement on the Continent, made their last major attempt to recover the

British throne for the Stuart dynasty. Prince Charles Edward (“Bonnie

Prince Charlie”) landed in Scotland, won the allegiance of thousands of

Highlanders, and in September captured Edinburgh and proclaimed his father

King James III. Marching south with his army, he came within a hundred

miles of London, but failed to attract many English supporters. In December

he retreated to Scotland. The following April he was defeated at the Battle

of Culloden and fled to France.

The War of the Austrian Succession ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

(1748), which, as far as Britain was concerned, restored the territorial

status quo. By then, a series of short-lived ministries had given way to

the relatively stable administration of Henry Pelham. During the mid-1750s

the British found themselves fighting an undeclared war against France both

in North America (see French and Indian War) and in India. In 1756 formal

war broke out again. The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) pitted Britain,

allied with Prussia, against France in alliance with Austria and Russia.

For Britain the war began with a series of defeats in North America, in

India, in the Mediterranean, and on the Continent (where the French overran

Hannover). Under strong popular pressure, King George II then appointed the

fiery William Pitt the Elder as the minister to run the war abroad, while

his colleague, the duke of Newcastle, oiled the political wheels at home.

Pitt was an expert strategist and conducted the war with vigor. The French

fleet was defeated off the coast of Portugal, the English East India

Company triumphed over its French counterpart in Bengal and elsewhere, and

British and colonial troops in North America captured Fort Duquesne (on the

site of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Quйbec, and Montrйal.

Although Pitt was forced from office in 1761 and the British negotiated

separately from Prussia, the Treaty of Paris (1763) was a diplomatic

triumph. All French claims to Canada and to lands east of the Mississippi

River were ceded to Britain, as were most French claims to India. Spain,

which had entered the war on the French side in 1762, ceded Florida. The

Treaty of Paris established Britain’s 18th-century empire at its height.

Population Growth, Urbanization, and Industrialization

During the first half of the 18th century, the population of Great Britain

increased by less than 15 percent. Between 1751 and 1801, the year of the

first official census, the number rose by one-half to 16 million, and

between 1801 and 1851, the population grew by more than two-thirds to 27

million. The reasons include a decline of deaths from infectious diseases,

especially smallpox; an improved diet made possible by more efficient

farming practices and the large-scale use of the potato; and earlier

marriages and larger families, especially in those areas where new

industries were starting up. A quickening of economic change was noticeable

by the 1780s, when James Watt perfected the steam engine as a new source of

power. New inventions mechanized the spinning and weaving of imported

cotton. Between 1760 and 1830 the production of cotton textiles increased

twelvefold, making the product Britain’s leading export. At the same time,

other inventions comparably raised the production of iron, and the amount

of coal mined increased fourfold. By 1830 this Industrial Revolution had

turned Britain into the “workshop of the world.”

The towns that spread across northwestern England, lowland Scotland, and

southern Wales accustomed a generation of workers to factory life. The

advantages were more regular hours, higher wages than those received by

handicraft workers or farm laborers, and less dependence on human muscle

power; many machines could be operated by women and children. The

disadvantages included the devaluation of old artisan skills, a new

emphasis on discipline and punctuality, and a less personal relationship

between employer and employee. For several decades also, such civic

amenities as water and sewage systems did not keep pace with the growth of

population. London remained Britain’s largest city, a center of commerce,

shipping, justice, and administration more than of industry. Its

population, estimated at 600,000 in 1701, had grown to 950,000 by 1801, and

to 2.5 million by 1851, making it the largest city in the world. By then,

Britain had become the first large nation to have more urban than rural


The Early Years of King George III

In 1760, the aged George II was succeeded by his 22-year-old grandson,

George III. The new British-born king had a deep sense of moral duty and

tried to play a direct role in governing his country. To this end he

appointed men he trusted, such as his onetime Scottish tutor, Lord Bute,

who became prime minister in 1762. Bute’s ministry was not a success,

however, and four short-lived ministries followed until 1770, when George

found, in Lord North, a leader pleasing both to him and to the majority of


During the 1760s, politicians out of office spurred a campaign of criticism







**********************************************************f13Borough), an

expansion of the right to vote, and an increase in the frequency of

meetings of Parliament.

The American Revolution

The fears expressed by Wilkes’s supporters confirmed the more radical

American colonial leaders in their suspicion of the British government.

Long accustomed to a considerable degree of self-government and freed,

after 1763, from the French danger, they resented the attempts by

successive British ministries to make them pay a share of the cost of

imperial defense in the form of assorted taxes and duties. They also

resented British attempts to enforce mercantilistic regulations and to

treat colonial legislatures as secondary to the government in London.

American resistance led in due course to the calling of the First

Continental Congress in 1774 and the commencement of hostilities the

following year. Although parliamentary critics such as Edmund Burke

continued to urge conciliation, the king and Lord North felt the rebellious

colonists had to be brought to their senses.

British governmental authority in the 13 colonies collapsed in 1775.

Although British forces were able to occupy first Boston and later New York

City and Philadelphia, the Americans did not give up. After the defeat of

General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, the civil war within the British

Empire became an international one. First the French (1778), then the

Spanish (1779), and the Dutch (1780) joined the anti-British side, while

other powers formed a League of Armed Neutrality. For the first time in

more than a century, the British were diplomatically isolated. After

General Charles Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781, opposition at

home to the frustrations and high taxation brought on by the American war

compelled Lord North to resign and his successors to sign a new Treaty of

Paris in 1783. The 13 colonies were recognized as independent states and

were granted all British territory south of the Great Lakes. Florida and

Minorca were ceded to Spain and some West Indian islands and African ports

to France.

Pitt, Reform, and Revolution

In the wake of the war, many old institutions were reexamined. The

Economical Reform Act of 1782 reduced the patronage powers of the king and

his ministers. The Irish Parliament, controlled by Anglo-Irish Protestants,

won a greater degree of independence. The India Act in 1784 gave ultimate

authority over British India to the government instead of the English East

India Company. The India Act was sponsored by William Pitt the Younger, who

was named prime minister late in 1783 at the age of 24. Pitt remained in

office for most of the rest of his life and did much to shape the modern

prime ministership. In the aftermath of the American war, he restored faith

in the government’s ability to pay interest on the much-increased national

debt, and he set up the first consolidated annual budget. Pitt was also

sympathetic to political reform, repeal of restrictions on non-Anglican

Protestants, and abolition of the slave trade, but when these measures

failed to win a parliamentary majority, he dropped them.

Reformers, such as Charles James Fox and Thomas Paine, were inspired by the

revolution that began in France in 1789, but others, such as Edmund Burke,

became fearful of all radical change. Pitt was less concerned with French

ideas than actions, and when the French revolutionary army invaded the

Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and declared war on England in February

1793, a decade of moderate reform in Britain gave way to 22 years of all-

out war.

The Napoleonic Wars

In the 1790s, the wars of the French Revolution merged into the Napoleonic

Wars, as Napoleon Bonaparte took over the French revolutionary government.

Pitt’s First Coalition (with Prussia, Austria, and Russia) against the

French collapsed in 1796, and in 1797 Britain was beset by naval defeat, by

naval mutiny, and by French invasion attempts. The war caused a boom in

farm production and in certain industries. At the same time it caused rapid

inflation: Wage rates lagged behind prices, and Poor Law expenses grew. In

1797 the Bank of England was forced to suspend the payment of gold for

paper currency, and Parliament voted the first income tax. Rebellion and a

French invasion threat led to the Act of Union with Ireland (1801). The

Dublin legislature was abolished, and 100 Irish representatives became

members of the Parliament in London; only an Irish viceroy and a London-

appointed administration remained in Dublin.

Despite the defeat of the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the war

did not go well for Britain. The Second Coalition collapsed in 1801, and

Britain made peace with Napoleon at Amiens the following year. War broke

out again the following year, but between 1805 and 1807 the Third Coalition

also collapsed. Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain were foiled by the

British naval victory under Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar. Napoleon then

sought to drive Britain into bankruptcy with his Continental System.

Difficulties in enforcing that system prompted Napoleon’s invasion of

Russia in 1812. This led to the Fourth Coalition (Britain, Russia, Austria,

and Prussia) and to Napoleon’s downfall two years later. Britain’s

contribution included an army led by the duke of Wellington fighting in

Spain and, after Napoleon’s return from exile in Elba, the Battle of

Waterloo in June 1815. The War of 1812 with the United States was for

Britain a sideshow that brought no territorial changes.

A Century of Peace

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, King George III, by then insane, had

been succeeded by his eldest son, who reigned first as prince regent and

then as King George IV. Although a patron of art and Regency architecture,

the prince regent became unpopular because of his gluttony and his personal

immorality. His attempt to divorce his wife, Caroline of Brunswick,

provided much cause for scandal.

Postwar Government (1815-1830)

Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, presided as Tory prime

minister from 1812 to 1827, over a cabinet of luminaries including Viscount

Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, who represented Britain at the Congress

of Vienna (1815). Former Dutch possessions such as the Cape of Good Hope

and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were added to the British Empire, and a balance

of power was restored to continental Europe. Although eager to consult its

European partners about possible territorial changes, Britain soon made it

clear that it had no desire to join the Holy Alliance (Russia, Austria, and

Prussia) in policing Europe.

Rapid demobilization after the wars, economic depression, and bad harvests

led to rioting in 1816. The Liverpool government sought to aid landlords

with protective tariffs (the Corn Laws of 1815) and to aid other supporters

by repealing the wartime income tax in 1817 and restoring the gold standard

in 1819. The so-called Six Acts in 1819 curbed the freedom of the press and

the rights of assembly. A giant political protest demonstration near

Manchester that year was broken up by the militia. The economy recovered

during the early 1820s, and government policies became more moderate.

George Canning, who replaced Castlereagh as foreign secretary, welcomed the

independence of Spain’s South American colonies and aided the Greek

rebellion against Turkish rule—a cause also hailed by romantic poets such

as Lord Byron. William Huskisson at the Board of Trade cut tariffs and

eased international trade. Robert Peel, the home secretary, reformed the

criminal law and instituted a modern police force in London in 1829.

Barriers to labor union organization were also reduced during this time.

Despite an early 19th-century religious revival, especially among

Methodists and other non-Anglican Protestants, Tory ministries remained

reluctant to challenge religious and political fundamentals. In 1828

Parliament agreed, however, to end political restrictions on Protestant

dissenters, and one year later the government of the duke of Wellington was

challenged in Ireland by a mass movement called the Catholic Association.

Wellington bought peace in Ireland by granting Roman Catholics the right to

become members of Parliament and to hold public office, but in so doing

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